Chapter 1

Homecoming

Weddings and funerals. It always brought families together. I used to think I was immune to the call that often pulled family members back to their childhood home kicking and screaming. But I wasn't. I was just like everyone else who'd made an empty promise to 'never go back again' after they'd packed their bags and watched home grow smaller in the distance.

The plane ride had been torture. My mind just wouldn't turn off, not that I really expected it obey considering everything I was coming back to. The Old Bear was dead. Nothing would be the same. Each time my eyes grew heavy enough for them to close, the finality of his death came rushing back to me like a sobering slap across the face. And if sleep did manage to come it only lasted a handful of minutes before I awoke with a start, unsure where I was before reality hit hard in the gut. I was going to be beaten black and blue before arrived.

Although I didn't like to admit it, not all of my thoughts were morose. Visions of Dad's smiling face got me through the lay over in Baltimore and the smell of the lilac's I knew would be blooming helped me get over the suitcase they managed to lose. But there was one face in particular I was both dreading and excited to see. That alone nearly made me nauseated. I was a woman returning home now, far from the child I'd once been when I'd left. If they'd welcome me back with open arms remained to be seen but it was difficult to remain optimistic.

The gravel crunching beneath the taxi's tires stirred from a fitful sleep. Late afternoon sun desperately tried to push through the thick pine trees that lined the winding back road. Only a few golden rays were able to seep through the canopy. Like a flash of light a memory came flooding back to me. A game of tag that sent all us kids running through the woods. I'd thought I'd been smart to cut across the road and head up the mountain from the other side until a misplaced foot sent me crashing onto the small rocks in the road. I still had a small scar on one of my knees to forever remind me of the fall. But what I remembered most of all was never shedding a tear. I picked myself up, shoved back my dirty, knotted hair and continued running. After all there'd been a game to win, and there was nothing quite like winning a game to child. Skinned knees be damned.

"This place home to you?" the cab driver asked, glancing back at me in the mirror.

I answered with a curt nod before I realized he couldn't see it. "Yeah, I grew up here. They were some of the best years of my life."

"Childhood is usually the best for everyone. It's being an adult that fucking sucks."

I smirked a his candidness. That I couldn't help but agree with.

Before long the taxi rolled to a slow stop in front of Wolfcreek Manor. When I'd been ten and stared up at the place it felt like a sprawling mansion, now, nearing 30, the place still seemed massive especially when I compared to the one bedroom apartment waiting for me back in LA.

"Looks like there's no shortage of rooms." The nameless taxi driver was nice enough to grab my luggage even after I protested.

"We were a big family. Still are really." There weren't as many of us as there used to be, but it was still enough to fill the house. That thought alone had always given me hope before.

By the time the taxi drove away, leaving me in the dwindling light, no one had come out to greet me. Instead it was only the cool summer wind rolling off the mountain, twirling my dark, thick hair and rattling the pine trees that welcomed me. With the breeze came the smell of lilacs, honeysuckles, wet moss, and sadness. I closed my eyes and took everything in. Like scents, emotions hung heavy in the air. There were many but most were akin to sorrow. My stomach churned. Confrontation was immanent.

The blow caught me in the shoulder. It would have caught me square in the back hadn't the wind suddenly changed directions, allowing me to smell him standing behind me. I tried to move but wasn't quite fast enough. The impact had me spinning around, desperate to remain on my feet. This time I saw the next blow coming in the form of a large, dark fist. Dodging it came easy, a tilt of the head and half a step back had him hitting nothing but air. But as soon as that swing missed another came at me. Although I managed to dodge that one as well I'd also managed to completely forget about the luggage at my feet.

Before I knew it I was falling back over a dufflebag packed full of clothes. My back hit the gravel hard and pain seared across my spine. I wasn't sure what was more annoying, the pain, or the whooping laughter that followed my graceful fall.

The dark-skinned man loomed over me, arms folded against his broad chest. I knew it was him even before my eyes found him there, chuckling at my misfortune.

"I don't see what's so damn funny, Dad." As soon as I'd made contact with the ground I was already scrambling to get back on my feet. It had been almost ten years since I'd seen most of my family and the last thing I wanted was for our reunion to be made up of me rolling around on the ground like a fool. That was a sure fire way for me not to gain any ounce of respect during my visit.

"You're still light on your feet at least, Kit. Was worried all that city food might have made you slow. Clogged up your pretty little arteries." he stood over me and blocked out the sun. His height left more to be desired but my father still managed to be a wall of a man. Age had done nothing to his physique, in fact all he had to show for his old age was a light dusting of gray in his beard.

One of the straps from the dufflebag had some how tangled itself around my foot and it took a few furious kicks for me to get free. All the while my father didn't dare offer me so much a hand to help me up.

"Don't pretend that you didn't enjoy LA when you came to visit last summer. If anyone clogged their arteries then it was you. Exactly how many trips did you take down the road to Chipolte?"

"That's different. I was on vacation."

By the time I finally got to my feet I heard another voice shout out in the distance. "Is that Bluebird?"

"Sure is!" Dad shouted back over his shoulder. "Late as usual."

I cringed at the childhood name. During the trip I had high hopes that the name would be forgotten much like an old book, ultimately shelved and occasionally revisited. No such luck.

"Tell her to hurry her scrawny ass up!" The voice called back.

Dad laughed again and I hid the twinge of pain that came from a hard slap on the back. It was as loving a gesture as I'd get for the time being. None of them would come out and say it but tough love was my punishment for leaving. They all understood, hiding behind teasing and smiles, but family pride wouldn't let them forget.

Three days. I only had to get through three days.

The kitchen greeted me with familiar smells as soon as I stumbled in with my bags. Someone had started dinner and my stomach reminded me just how hungry I was after the shitty food they'd fed me on the plane.

"Am I the last to get here?"

Dad finally pried one of the bags from my hand, forcing me to take his help. "A few stragglers will be getting here tomorrow, but the real family's all here now that you've decided to show your face."

"Good thing too you little shit. If Hade asks me when you're getting here one more goddamn time I'm going to throw him out." Warren stood in the walkway that blocked the entrance to what I assumed was still the den. Unlike my father he was tall, slender, and a bit more refined in appearance. But like Dad he looked a few decades younger than he should have. He eyed me from my face all the way down to the dirty sneakers I'd put on in a hurry.

In that one quick glance I knew he'd read me to the fullest and the swirl of emotions I felt were all to clear for him. He saw me for what I was. Afraid. Unsure.

"Hi, Warren." My nervousness had me practically tongue-tied. How do you greet a man who lost his father and thus gained all of his responsibilities in one fell swoop? "I'm very sorry for your loss." It came out meaningful, as it should have been, but deep down inside I knew I could have picked better words for a man I'd known for most of my life.

He cut me off with a wave of his hand. "I know you did your grieving long before you got here, Bluebird. All of this is just formalities. Regardless it's good to see your face again. Seems you've finally grown into those legs of yours." He eyed me again this time a bit slower. "Your room's still where you left it." And with that he did an about-face and headed toward the patio, ultimately ending what I suppose could have been considered a conversation.

Trying to not to obsess on the awkward exchange of words, I nudged open what had once been my bedroom door. When I stepped inside I was met with posters and pictures I'd not seen since the night I'd left. I tried not to seem affected by the fact that Old Bear hadn't bothered to change my room, perhaps still clinging onto the small shred of hope that I'd return. But sadness still swelled in my stomach. Luckily for me I did my crying when I got the phone call. Now it was mainly the guilt I'd have to struggle with.

"You'd better go see Hade before he implodes or Warren kills him." Dad slung one of my bags haphazardly on the floor.

"Yeah Dad my trip was fine. Thanks for asking."

He smiled at me. "We've got the whole summer to talk, Bluebird." He tucked a few thick strands of hair behind my ear and briefly touched my pale cheek.

I frowned. "I told you I'd give you three days. That's all my boss would let me take."

His smile widened a bit. "Right." I knew that look. It meant he didn't believe me. Not that I was lying about my boss but that I wouldn't be capable of leaving that early. Somehow he was going to compel me to stay or at least he thought so.

"By the way." Dad turned back to me. "He's down by the creek."

"Who?" I knew who he meant but I asked anyway

He shook his head and let my question hang in the air.

Heat crept to my cheeks.

Just three days...

One of my most vivid memories as a child was when Hade came to stay at Wolfcreek. He'd been four when Old Bear found him. All that they'd let us kids know was that he'd been mistreated by trespassers in the area but even then I knew that Hade was different from the rest of us. Dare I say special? During his first night at the house he'd almost taken off Warren's thumb and gave another a black eye. He was strong, deadly and just a child.

There'd been late night conversations,when they assumed all us kids were asleep, where the men contemplated just killing him or 'The Boy Downstairs' as we'd come to call him. With my ear pressed against the bedroom door I couldn't be sure whose voice belonged to who, but I do know it was only Old Bear's loud protests that put the matter to rest. He wanted him to live.

It was a dare that first sent me down the basement steps, to see how close I could get to the The Boy's room before I ran back up frightened but victorious. Once I was declared the winner curiosity had me creeping closer, just to see if I could, until after a few days I sat outside his door. After school I'd read him Charlotte's Web and in the morning I slid him Cheerios under the door. All that came to a grinding halt of course when Dad found out.

It was Warren who named him and although I'm still sure it was out of spite, the name had come to fit him.

Hades J. Oakdale still called the basement home after all those years. For some reason those early bad memories didn't bother him in fact he seemed to take it all in stride. He'd turned the basement into both an office and bedroom. Even before I left he'd begun to move instruments down stairs much to Warren's dismay.

From the look of things as I stood in the doorway Hade had moved even more instruments down. A drum set was wedged in the corner near an antique piano buried beneath hand written sheet music. There, off to the side, at his desk was Hade's strong form. He was tall and his broad shoulders seemed rather odd hunched over the desk, hand writing furiously on a piece of scrap paper. Even from where I stood in the darkness, a single ray of fading light cutting through the middle of the room via a small window, I could see the muscles pressing against his shirt like an animal barely contained.

I reached up to the dangling bulb in the center of the room and cast away the darkness. "Don't pretend like you aren't happy to see me."

Hade turned his head to look at me. The polo shirt he wore didn't belong to the Hade I'd known six years ago. Considering the circumstances I could only assume he was trying to appear as distinguished as possible in front of guests. It was his unruly, shoulder length hair that gave me hope that he was the same person I'd left behind.

He signed with his hands.

Who told you?

"Warren. Who else?"

He got up from his desk and dwarfed me almost instantly. Suddenly it was almost impossible to remember him when he was small enough for me to pick up and tote around the house like the overgrown doll I never had.

"I like what you've done with the basement. But I think you're running out of-"

It only took him two strides to close the distance between us and wrap his strong arms around me. The hug was tight and lifted me up off the floor for a few seconds. My first genuine laugh in days slipped out of my lips. I felt his heart beating strong against me and the warmth of his body heat crawling across my skin. Finally I felt some sort of comfort.

That's probably the only hug you'll get while you're here. He signed once he let me down.

"I can't expect everyone to understand. But its their loss right? Besides, I'm here for Old Bear."

Sadness crept into his face. He shoved back a hand full of hair and looked down at me. Unlike Warren, Hade wore his emotions on his sleeve for all to see. The man he knew as his father was dead. Although I'd mourned him already, Hade still had a ways to go. My hand reached up hesitantly and touched his shoulder. Had this happened while I'd still been here I wouldn't have to hesitate. I would've touched him, kissed him on the forehead, and told him everything would be alright. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. A touch would have to speak for itself.

I'll be fine. I'm just glad you're visiting.

He grabbed my hand and brought it to his face, forcing my fingertips across the fine stubble of his jaw. It was an innocent gesture that reminded me of the year we'd spent together when 'The Boy Downstairs' finally came out of his room.

"Want to go for a run after dinner?"

Hade's eyes lit up like I knew they would.

"We can go as far as the apple orchard, if it's still there. Maybe even race back."

The orchard's still there, but most of your old short cuts are overgrown. I can take you to the old well, it's still there or at least what's left of it. His hands were moving fast, showing his excitement.

I smiled up at him. "It's a date."

Although he didn't say anything, I had a feeling even he knew where I was headed as I marched back upstairs to what felt like an empty house. Emotions hung heavy in the air like wet blankets, not allowing me to forget that others were here somewhere, even if I couldn't see them. The decor was just as I'd remembered it, relatively modern with emphasis on all the yellowed photographs framed on the wall. The television was forgotten in a corner. The dust spoke volumes on how often it was turned on since there were no children around anymore to watch cartoon reruns.

From the den I made my way to the porch and was greeted with the smell of lilacs for a second time. Once again I was alone and yet not. Where ever Warren went my father had apparently gone there too, and with Wolfcreek sitting on top of a mountain there was no telling where the others found themselves. But I knew which direction I'd be going.

I started off at a sprinting pace through the woods. Luckily the path was still worn and well-traveled which made tripping less of a fear. The smooth sidewalks I'd left in LA had been perfect for morning jogs although the chances of getting mugged or shot were much higher in my area of the city, more specifically, the poor section.

The sound of water rushing over rocks was a welcome sound. During the summer the creek usually slowed to a trickle, depending on the rainfall. To hear it now meant the mountain had been thriving in my absense.

When I slowed my pace coming around the bend I spotted his shoes resting against a rotted tree stump. Dark boots with worn and frayed laces. That seemed his style, assuming his personality hadn't changed. There was a splash in the distance, followed by another. Carefully I meandered off the path toward the sounds of life. There, wading up to his knees in the cold water, was Rhys. His tall form was bent over while his hands dipped into the creek. He was still. The rise and fall of his chest beneath his shirt barely there. Then, out of no where there was a splash. His arms dove deeper into the crystal clear water and were then yanked back up. A medium sized fished desperately flapped around in his arms.

"Good job."

My voice surprised him. His body jerked and the fish fell back into the creek. Rhys spun around and looked up at me with his one good eye. The black eye patch cut across his rather handsome face before getting lost in dark brown hair. Rhys had cut his curls and opted for something close cut instead. For some reason I found the change a bit jarring.

"Shit. I'm sorry." I said, moving further down to the water's edge. "That's not exactly what I wanted to happen."

Rhys stood still, not smiling, and if he was breathing he hid it well. For a second I thought what I was seeing was anger but then I realized it was bewilderment. He didn't think I'd come.

He laughed and shook his head. "Sara Mcay. What took you so long?"

"I live in LA now remember. That's almost as far as I can get from New York without taking a boat."

Rhys waded back to the shore. His sleeveless shirt was wet and stuck to his body like a second skin. "Don't remind me."

There was tension in the air between us. I knew we could both feel it crackling like electricity, licking at our bodies. It was a bit of awkward nervousness that neither of us could face. Looking at him as he stood in front of me, tall and lean, I knew we both could save ourselves days of uncomfortable conversation if one us would simply come out and speak our thoughts.

Were we still friends? Could we still finish each others sentences? Could we pick up where we left off? Or had too much changed now?

If we'd been children one of us would've come right out and said it so we could get on with the day. As adults we just let the subject sit there and fester inside us until we were forced to react, most often irrationally.

"Did I spoil your dinner?"

He motioned toward the bucket resting off to the side. "I've got plenty. Figured we'd need a few more if everyone did manage to show tonight. Looks like I figured right for a change." Rhys' one green eye searched my face, perhaps trying to see what had changed the most in my features over the years. Then it happened. He put one foot forward, switching most of his weight on one leg. He was going in for a hug but stopped just as he began. Most wouldn't have even noticed. But I did.

I quickly filled the empty space between us with words. "I take it David's here...somewhere?"

"He's out for a run. Since...it happened he's been a bit paranoid, constantly doing perimeter checks. Says if he finds the ones responsible he's going to- well I think you can imagine what he said."

Finally a sign that some things hadn't changed at all.

"About your phone call..."

"Not here." His tone was stern but his body language passive. Someone was watching us. His one green eye looked out at the never-ending green behind me. "Desmond's made it clear that I'm not to talk about it." He motioned to the cut on his chin that I'd just begun to notice."

The first twinge of anger during my visit had begun to creep up my shoulders. Of course it would be Desmond. "Meet up after dinner then?"

He agreed. And then, as if on cue, the awkward silence began to settle in between us.

"I want to see him." I said, filling that void with words a second time.

He blinked. "I don't think that's a good idea, Bluebird."

"Take me there."

His mouth opened and then closed suddenly. He wouldn't win this battle of wills. He never could.